Friday, September 23, 2011

Adventures in Mental Illness

The depression, unfortunately, has continued. After weeks of sitting in it, I finally got it together to call a psychiatrist.

Though I've had almost as many therapists as lovers (and that's saying something), I've never been to a psychiatrist. Given my collective familial mental illness and my own bad chemicals, it's a little surprising. But I, like many, chocked up my depression to my underperforming thyroid, and my fanatically clean house and trim body not to OCD but to a love of aesthetics. That somehow was easier than taking a deep look at the weird stuff that sometimes goes through my head, than allowing myself a label or two.

I've seen this psychiatrist three times in the past week. Together we've tried to unknot the tangle of behavior and feelings, both mine and what I know of my family's. We've teased out strands and laid them before us like ropes of DNA. There, yes, is my mother's mania, her long deep depressions. There's her OCD. There's my father's impromptu singing in public, his dark anger. My brother's sadness, my sister's - well, as the doctor himself said, it sounds like my sister is a whole story unto herself.

I've been to the lab, been tested for my levels of folic acid, B vitamin, iron, etc, etc. I've even peed in a cup to test for UTI, which, somehow, came back positive? It has been a wholly fascinating journey, a cocktail of intellectual and emotional, medical and psychological. Turns out the anti-depressant I was on amps up anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behaviors, could even push a tendency towards mania - who knew?

The doctor had me map a mood-chart. I chose to look at my whole life. On the vertical axis, my mood. On the horizontal, my age. Together we dissected the highs and lows. The steep drops when I became a latch-key kid, when my first love affair bit the dust, when my father died, when my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimers. These losses, these abandonments, with which my heart - and my biology - weren't able to cope.

Looking at that chart, that long low line of my twenties, that perilous dip at adolescence, I feel regret. Regret that I couldn't know then what I know now, that I couldn't seek the help that's now at my disposal, in fact that didn't exist, at least not as it does in this brave new pharmacological age. All those years lost in the fog.

With every meeting with this doctor, I have more hope. Hope that I can wake up in the morning - maybe every morning? - feeling well. Hope that I can face myself - my sadness, my worry, my control - and perhaps do something to lessen my pain. Hope that I can shake off these generations of serotonin and dopamine deprived people that came before me, can step away from that dark whirlpool. Hell, I know it won't be perfect but I smell freedom on the wind.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

I’m depressed. Not as in I’ve-gained-five-pounds-depressed or my-favorite-TV-show-got-cancelled-depressed but depressed as in there’s-not-enough-dopamine-or-serotonin-or-whatver-goddamned-chemical-my-brain-is-lacking-depressed.

I come from a long line of depressed people, grim French Catholics on my father’s side and sad destitute Romanians on my mother’s. My father, it seems, had his issues with depression. He died when I was barely an adult so I can only put the pieces together and come up with a theory. My mother was no mystery. She was depressed her whole life, more and more as she aged. By the time my father fell ill, she was having breakdowns. When he died she was catatonic. Ironically, as the Alzheimers has progressed, the depression has waned. She has forgotten to worry. There’s a clinical connection between depression and Alzheimers, however. I think of it as the depression wearing grooves in the brain, sad obsessive thoughts forging pathways and burning them out. Not such a cheery future to imagine for myself. More reason, in fact, to be depressed.

I’ve struggled with low-grade depression my entire life. I’ve been on an antidepressant for the last few years. I went on it when my mother was diagnosed and I could barely leave the house I was so overwhelmed. The medication helped. A lot. Within a week I was waking up every morning optimistic. I no longer had to massage my mood with caffeine, chocolate and exercise. I was just even. I remember thinking, “Oh, so this is what it’s like to have a normal brain.”

For the last year or maybe even two, the medication hasn’t been very effective. I haven’t been deeply depressed but I haven’t been reliably even-keeled either. Instead of increasing my dosage, I decided to come off the medication. For the last three months, I’ve been on a slow and careful wean. This medication particularly can have nasty withdrawal symptoms. Like, ha ha, depression.

The summer was fine but the last couple weeks have gotten rough. Environmental factors have tested me – the stress of the kids starting school, the change of season (my father fell terminally ill in autumn), Ben leaving for ten days, even the anniversary of 9/11. My chemicals have shifted. I move in a fog. My brain isn’t sharp, decisions are difficult. I’m forgetful. I’m filled with dread. It is like a perpetually overcast day in my head.

This depression probably isn’t my own depression. It’s probably the drug leaving my system. Over the next couple months, I will probably bounce back. But that doesn’t mean this doesn’t suck. When I’m depressed I have no perspective. It seems that I will always feel this way.

I’ve told an awful lot of people about my current dilemma. Hell, I’m writing about it here. I spent years pleading with my suicidal mother to get treatment, trying to reason with her that if she had heart disease or cancer she’d seek a doctor’s help, that just because this disease of depression is mental, emotional, doesn’t mean it’s not real. I refused to be ashamed. Sometimes when I joke with new friends that I can’t drink hard alcohol because it disagrees with my antidepressant, I feel their discomfort. But damn it, my depression is a part of me. This struggle is life-long. I’m going to talk about it. Because to do otherwise is to deny a part of myself, to hide, to cower. If I do that, I’m afraid, it’ll eat me alive.

I’ve been drinking green juice, eating raw cacao, sweating it out on runs and in yoga classes. At some point in the class, this particular teacher always says, now is when you can leave something on the mat, something you’ve been carrying with you. I want to lie there and sob. Because I’m not certain I can leave this sadness behind. It’s part of my biology, it’s entwined in my DNA.

I’m parenting alone right now. Here again, I’m treading carefully. I know what it’s like to have a mother who’s depressed. I don’t want that for my kids. But, in fact, at the moment they have a mother who’s depressed. In my hours away from them, I do everything I can to fill my tank. In the hours I’m with them, I try to schedule group activities, mother’s helpers. Yesterday I got desperate and took them to “The Smurfs”. Anything’s better than trapping us all alone in the house with my despondency.

I’m putting one foot in front of the other, walking myself and these kids out of this valley and back to the hilltop. At least I hope that’s where we’re going.